Yogurt…a staple of many daily diets here in Canada and abroad. It is considered a nutritious food choice, and it is, if you know what to look for and what to avoid.

Most commercially made yogurts today are little more than liquid candy; full of sugar (or just as bad, artificial sweeteners), artificial colors and flavors, thickeners, and more; essentially a chemical sh$t storm… While they’re supposed to contribute healthy bacteria to your gut flora, these nasty ingredients can actually have the opposite effect.(1, 2, 3)

Adding to the confusion is a mind-boggling array of yogurt styles to choose from; low-fat, low calorie, Greek, Skyr, Balkan, probiotic, and more.

I promise, by the end of this blog you’ll be navigating the yogurt aisle like a nutritionist! It’s not as complicated as it seems.

What is Real Yogurt?

The only ingredients required to make yogurt are milk (or cream, or both) and live bacterial culture. That’s it, that’s all! These are left to ferment for different periods of time, from 4 – 24 hours, depending on the type of yogurt being made and the ethics of the food manufacturer…some choose profit over integrity…gasp!! 

During the fermentation period, the bacterial culture breaks down the naturally occurring sugar in milk (lactose) into lactic acid, which causes the yogurt to taste sour. The breakdown of lactose explains why some folks with lactose intolerance can tolerate yogurt, particularly those which have been fermented longer.  

Since this is a long blog (there’s ALOT to say about yogurt!),  I’m unveiling my top picks for best yogurts, rank-ordered, right at the outset:

  1. Grass-fed, organic, whole-milk yogurt,
  2. Organic, whole-milk yogurt,
  3. Conventional whole-milk yogurt     

But I encourage you to read through for the why; why grass-fed, why organic, and why/what the heck is whole milk. 

Plus, you’ll find a mini-checklist and a yummy recommendation! If you’re dairy-free, my Mini-Checklist for Buying Yogurt will still be helpful for you. 

Types of Yogurt

Standard/regular Yogurt – the vast majority of yogurts in the grocery stores today will fall here, in the category of “Junk Food Disguised as Health Food”. Now that you know the only 2 ingredients required to make yogurt, check out the ingredient list from this peach flavoured yogurt from Yoplait:

Pasteurized Grade A Low Fat Milk, Sugar, Modified Corn Starch. Contains 1% or less of: Kosher Gelatin, Citric Acid, Natural Flavor, Potassium Sorbate Added to Maintain Freshness, Annatto Extract (for color), Yogurt Cultures (L. bulgaricus, S. thermophilus, L. acidophilus), Vitamin A Acetate, Vitamin D3.

It’s labeled as “Low Fat” (as if that’s a good thing!), but I guess that kind of makes up for the whopping 30 grams of sugar per serving!! For reference, 4 grams of sugar = 1 teaspoon of sugar. You do the math.

In addition to standard yogurt products, there are “specialty” yogurts. As you’ll see, it doesn’t mean they’re any better.

Greek Yogurt: Greek yogurt differs from standard yogurt in that it is strained. Straining  removes the liquid whey, as well as some of the lactose, salt and water, leaving behind a thicker yogurt which is higher in protein and also usually lower in sugar (and therefore, carbohydrates). Sounds like a great option, but scanning the nutritional label is vital. Remember my point about food companies chasing profit first?

As a side note, if you are eco and/or agri-conscious, you might like to know that every cup of Greek yogurt takes up to three cups of milk to make, which results in a lot of wasted product, which then needs to then be disposed of. Compare this to standard yogurt, where the ratio of milk to yogurt is 1:1. (4)

Icelandic/Skyr Yogurt: As its name implies, this is Iceland’s traditional way to ferment milk. Like greek yogurt, skyr is strained (whey is removed), so the protein content is, again, higher than standard yogurts and it’s consistency is thick and curdy. It is naturally a non-fat yogurt made with skim milk and active bacterial cultures. Some skyr producers add cream back into the product to up the fat content (due to consumer demand or different taste…not sure…).

Like greek yogurt, it takes 4 times as much milk to make one cup of skyr as compared to regular yogurt. (5)

Balkan-Style: Balkan-style yogurt is made in small individual batches rather than in large vats. Warm cultured milk is poured into containers then incubated without any further stirring, giving it it’s characteristically thick texture.

Probiotic Yogurt: The sheer numbers of friendly bacteria within the human body and their central role in virtually all aspects of our well-being is the talk in all health circles today, as the science keeps stacking up. (7) Along with being a balanced source of protein, fats, and carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals (especially calcium), yogurt offer us a tasty, convenient way to replenish our gut microbes.

Culturing (fermentation) time, temperature, and microorganisms added to the milk all play a part in determining probiotic outcomes in a yogurt.

These will differ between food companies, so to keep things simple for you:

  •  Search out a yogurt that contains “live” or “active” cultures, because some yogurts can be heat-treated after the bacteria has been added.
  • The higher the probiotic count (expressed as CFU’s), the better (provided it’s without added sugar and other junk ingredients)!

In Canada, all yogurts must be made with the strains; lactobacillus bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophilus. Some manufacturers add in additional strains.

Most commercially made yogurts are estimated to provide up to 300,000 live bacteria per serving, an amount too low to provide health benefits. (6A, 6B)

Commercial yogurt brands whose products offer greater numbers of bacteria will typically promote this on their labels. I commonly see labels stating the product contains one billion CFUs.  A select few have tested consumer interest in a higher CFU containing yogurt. For example, DanActive (Danone) and BioBest Maximmunité (Astro) offer up 10 billion live bacteria per serving. This may sound like alot but in my practice that is the minimum I look for in a probiotic supplement. 

Theoretically, these would be a great choice. But remember to check that ingredient list – it’s a better indicator of how nourishing a food is. What good will those extra probiotics do for you if they come with massive amounts of sugar and other non nutrients which disrupt the balance of your gut flora and your metabolic health?!

Besides, if probiotic benefit is the main reason you eat yogurt, look to kefir my friends! You’ll get a greater variety of strains (as high as 32!!) to complement your existing tribe of microbes, and a longer fermentation period allows those good guys to keep on multiplying.

Low-Fat / Low-Calorie: I’ll lump these into one since they’re both targeting dieters, and they’re both so very problematic! First, any yogurt that is missing fat and/or carbohydrates typically has a long list of junk ingredients to make up for those missing macronutrients, and the unbeatable taste and texture they provide.

Second, observational studies have concluded that “diet yogurts” are not associated with a reduced risk of obesity. (8)

Did you know that fat and sugar substitutes, including artificial sweeteners, may actually diminish weight-loss efforts?

The artificial sweetness present in these yogurts may confuse your taste buds and contribute to more sweet cravings. Also, human and animal studies have demonstrated that some artificial sweeteners can raise your blood sugar levels even more than if you consumed table sugar! Bad news, since insulin dysregulation is a big factor in overweight/obesity crisis. (9A, 9B)

You need to eat fat in order to lose fat. If you haven’t heard it already, going fat-free is downright detrimental to your health – read more about that here. If you’re someone who eats factory farmed animal products daily, including meats, eggs, and dairy from conventionally raised animals, consider that the saturated fat present in these products encourages inflammation in the body, so yes, cut back. But why not swap some of your meat-based meals for plant-based meals, and enjoy yogurt in it’s natural state, fat and all.

Frozen Yogurt: Unlike yogurt, frozen yogurts do not need to meet any specific government standards to be called frozen yogurt. Therefore, companies may skip the actual fermentation process, or not use live bacterial cultures at all. Even if they do, the number of live bacteria remaining after freezing is so minute after the freezing that it’s irrelevant. Basically, there is virtually no probiotic benefit in this style of yogurt, and a whole lot of sugar. Best to consider this one dessert. (10)

Ultimate Guide to Buying Healthy Yogurt

In Canada, all commercially made yogurts are made from milk that has been pasteurized (and many have also been homogenized), which alters its natural state, dramatically affects it’s nutrient profile, and creates issues in the digestive tract. (11)

In a perfect world, you would be able to benefit from yogurt made with raw milk, which is far better tolerated and more nutrient-dense. Sadly, raw milk is outlawed in Canada despite being deemed safe, health-promoting, and therefore legal in Europe and many US states. (12, 13) As an aside, I believe the mass consumption of altered milk may be a factor behind dairy being the most common food allergen. It’s also a very common food sensitivity.  

So, what’s the next best option, you ask? In 2014, the Cornucopia Institute concluded that yogurt which was grass-fed, organic, and whole-milk (meaning unmodified milk, so no “modified milk ingredients” such as skim milk powder) was the best option of all commercial yogurts. (14)

There are several reasons for this;

1. You avoid chemical defoamers permitted in conventional yogurt production,

2. You receive greater nutrition from organic, grass-fed dairy. Most notably, there is a better ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fatty acids, which is useful in fighting inflammation, the main suspect in an ever-growing list of chronic diseases.

3. Whole milk has naturally occurring fat. The presence of fat ensure that fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) will be absorbed into the body. This study found that calcium may be more readily absorbed in the presence of fat. So when non-fat or skim milk is used to make yogurt, the benefits of these fat-soluble nutrients are lost.

Be sure to buy plain; you can flavour it yourself using a little jam, honey, stevia, berries, vanilla, granola, etc. Most yogurts contain far too much sugar, which actually feeds disease-causing bacteria, yeast, and fungi in your gut.

If grass-fed dairy is not within your reach, but organic is, that’s still good. You’re avoiding the toxic residues known to be present in the products of factory farmed animals which can interfere with our delicate gut flora.

Third place goes to a plain, whole milk yogurt, which still supplies you with decent nutrition including Omega 3 fatty acids, protein, calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin D, vitamin K2, enzymes and probiotics.

To recap, my top picks for best yogurts, rank-ordered:

  1. Grass-fed, organic, whole-milk yogurt: if you’re in Ottawa or Montreal, here’s a local producer, Upper Canada Creamery, whose products are in mainstream grocery stores! I can personally vouch for their yogurt, it’s outstanding! While they’re required to pasteurize their milk by law, they don’t homogenize it, so the naturally occurring fat globules are left unaltered. 
  2. Organic, whole-milk yogurt,
  3. Conventional whole-milk yogurt     

**For those who are dairy-free, the criteria below also apply to dairy-free yogurt shopping.

Mini-Checklist for Buying Yogurt

  • Minimum number of ingredients: Remember, real yogurt should only contain milk (ideally whole, not skim), maybe cream, and active bacterial cultures.
  • Active Cultures: Real yogurt should contain whole milk and live or active bacterial cultures on the ingredients list, this will ensure that you are getting true fermented yogurt and the probiotic benefit.
  • Fat Content: If you’re buying grass-fed, grab the highest fat yogurt (typically 3.25% to 4%) so you can benefit from the higher amounts of Omega 3 fats. All yogurt is a source of another helpful fatty acid, known as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). CLA has been shown to reduce the risk for heart disease, reduce belly fat, lower cholesterol, increase metabolism and more. (15) Don’t forget the other benefits of fat as mentioned above, absorption of fat soluble vitamins.
  • No Added Sugars: Milk contains natural sugar (lactose). While the live cultures break some of it down, all yogurt- even plain- will have some sugar content. Natural plain yogurt contains about 7 grams of sugar per serving, but sugar should not be found on the ingredient list.

Transitioning to plain yogurt can be a little rough on the palate for some, but if you’re wanting to eat foods that nourish instead of foods that rob you of your health, you’ll make it happen!

Since yogurt is a healthier option than milk, why not swap your usual chocolate pudding for the easiest, healthiest chocolate pudding ever?!

One Minute Chocolate Pudding

Mix 1 cup of yogurt with raw honey or stevia, and 2 teaspoons of pure cocoa. Mix well and refrigerate for 2 hours before enjoying.

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